President Donald Trump met North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in Singapore on 12 June. The summit was hailed as historic. Trump, true to form, also seems to have gone further than his own government and military heads intended, promising to freeze “provocative” US-led military exercises and even opening a door to possible reductions in US troop numbers stationed in South Korea.
It was ‘historic’ because no sitting US president has ever met a North Korean leader. It was one of the biggest media events of 2018 with 2,500 foreign journalists descending on Singapore. Millions in the Koreas and around the world are relieved that last year’s nuclear brinkmanship seems to be off the agenda.
But this will be a shaky and tortuous ‘peace process’ with a high risk of reverses and even collapse. Capitalism and imperialism does not have real solutions to these problems, no more than it has solutions in the Middle East or in the US itself.
Victory for Trump?
Trump probably deludes himself that he’s put the US in the driving seat over Korea, stealing a march on China especially, and can dictate this process going forward. That’s extremely unlikely.
The biggest winner from the deal is Kim Jong-un, who so far has committed to very little in return for what, if Trump’s statements aren’t rescinded, would be major concessions by the US: ending joint military drills with South Korea and cutting US troop numbers based there (currently 28,000).
Xi Jinping is another winner, so far. China maintains a strong hand in the wings. It can also boast that its approach has been vindicated. Xi’s regime supported Trump’s harsher sanctions against North Korea, provided they were endorsed by the UN, but called for dialogue instead of threats. The Chinese regime pitched the ‘freeze-for-freeze’ proposal, which Trump rejected but has now adopted - that the US suspend its joint military exercises in exchange for North Korea freezing its nuclear activities.
From here on it will get very complicated. There are several other major powers, not only the US and China, with a big stake in what happens next. The South Korean capitalists have their own agenda and it’s significant that the main push for the Trump-Kim summit came from Seoul and president Moon. The survival interests of the North Korean dictatorship, which have always governed its maverick behaviour, can produce more shocks and somersaults.
The actual content of the deal is very vague with few specifics. The Singapore communiqué ran to just 400 words, compared to 110 pages in the case of the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump denounced as “horrible” and withdrew from in May. The word “verification” – to confirm Pyongyang has implemented agreed steps to roll back its nuclear programme – is completely missing.
Both sides have agreed only on grand ambitions such as to work for a “peace regime” on the Korean peninsula. The US agrees to provide security guarantees (from Trump who nine months ago threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea) in return for a vague commitment to nuclear disarmament by Kim’s regime.
Does this pave the way for removing nuclear weapons?
Leaving aside the hypocrisy of the US - the only state to use nuclear weapons in a war also claims the moral high ground against other countries developing such weapons - the Pyongyang regime is almost certainly not going to give up all its nuclear weapons. A partial reduction, giving up some of the longer-range missile systems that can reach the US for example, is possible in return for huge bribes and financial incentives.
A recent speech by Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton that North Korea should follow the “Libyan model” won’t have helped to change Kim Jong-un’s mind. Gadhafi, who gave up Libya’s nuclear weapons programme in 2003, was subsequently overthrown by the US and murdered.
The actual wording of the communiqué says North Korea “commits to work towards complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” (our emphasis). This is standard diplomatic waffle and puts the North Korean regime in a strong position to manoeuvre and stall for maximum concessions at every step. This has always been its strategy. The US side are not so stupid that they can’t see the deal is full of loopholes, but they, particularly Trump personally, wanted it done anyway. That is a key point in order to understand what has happened.
This is a very abrupt turn by the US under Trump. Previous US governments have been guided largely by the idea the North Korean regime was close to collapse. Accordingly, diplomatic and economic isolation – sanctions – could hasten this process or force the regime to negotiate from a position of weakness. This, rather than very risky military action to stop Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons, was the favoured US outcome.
What’s changed is that a degree of economic stabilisation in North Korea has made the collapse of the regime less likely in the short term. But the wider regional picture is also changing, especially with the escalating conflict between the US and China. This is the other main reason for the US government’s sharp change of course.
Numerous studies have shown US leaders that a “surgical military strike” against North Korea’s nuclear installations is not a viable option. It would likely escalate into a war that the US could of course win militarily but, with or without a horrific nuclear exchange, the devastation would be so colossal – in Korea North and South, in Japan and even in parts of China – that the US would lose Asia, generating massive anti-US feeling across the region. The global economy would also most likely enter a major crisis under such a scenario.
Previous US governments negotiated much tougher and more extensive pacts over North Korea’s nuclear programme with Kim’s father Kim Jong-il in the 1990s (the ‘Agreed Framework’) and 2000s (Six-party talks). Both of those arrangements collapsed. The loose deal Trump has negotiated could in fact have been achieved by the US at any time in the past 20 years.
This accord with Kim is not just a product of Trump’s idiosyncrasies – his unpredictability. It is a reflection of the declining power of US imperialism on the world stage and especially in Asia where it is checked on every front by the growing power of China. This is producing more desperate, adventuristic policies.
What does Trump hope to achieve?
Trump’s government is a government of turmoil and desperately craves successes. But apart from hoping ‘selfies’ with Kim Jong-un will lead to higher voter support, the deal allows the US to extricate itself from a potentially dangerous stalemate. Trump also sees an opportunity, if the deal leads to a deeper ‘normalisation’ process, to strengthen the US position in Asia at the expense of China and other rivals.
To this end, Trump had a Hollywood production team make a four-minute promotional video which he showed to Kim and the North Korean delegation, depicting a flood of US investments transforming North Korea into a new ‘miracle’ economy. At his press conference in Singapore, Trump the president gave way to Trump the property mogul. “Think of it from a real estate perspective,” he said. “As an example they [North Korea] have great beaches. You see that whenever they’re exploding their cannons into the ocean. I said, boy, look at that view. Wouldn’t that make a great condo?”
Some in the US government harbour hopes of being able to ‘flip’ North Korea into the US camp against China and Russia, which are both on its border. According to this scenario, in exchange for massive US economic assistance and military guarantees, linked to a process towards reunification with the South (full reunification ‘German-style’ is unlikely), the North Korean regime would agree together with the South to become part of the US security and military umbrella – constituting a threat to China’s and Russia’s interests in this case.
While the above scenario is unlikely, it is one that worries the Chinese regime which has experience over many decades of the North Korean regime’s maverick, not to say deceitful, diplomacy. This explains why Kim and Xi Jinping are currently holding talks for the third time in as many months; they had never met each other before this year. China is using its economic power and even an implied military threat to try to keep a prickly ally in line and block any moves towards a Trump-Kim axis at China’s expense.
China is North Korea’s main economic partner – accounting for 90 percent of its trade. But prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the regime of Kim’s grandfather Kim Il-sung played Moscow and Beijing off against each other, frequently using blackmail tactics similar to Kim’s tactics today.
The search for an accommodation with US imperialism to counterbalance its lopsided dependence on China has been one of the main rationales for North Korea’s nuclear programme. Kim undoubtedly hopes to profit - winning concessions on security, access to the global economy, investment deals, and more - by playing South Korea, Japan, Russia and especially the US and China, off against each other.
Despite what Trump may believe, it is by no means certain the US will come out on top in this new intensified scramble between imperialist powers. China will exert pressure in various ways to insure it is included in the ongoing talks with a major role in any agreements and future inspection regimes. Trump is as unpredictable as Kim Jong-un and could use the Korean negotiations to gain leverage in other conflicts with China, such as the rapidly escalating trade war.
But Trump is also known for his “isolationist” tendencies and earlier threats to withdraw US troops not only from South Korea but also from Japan, where 50,000 US troops are stationed, unless these governments “pay all the costs”. This is also linked to Trump’s desire to boost US arms exports, with Asia being the world’s fastest growing arms market.
His apparently off-the-cuff offer to Kim Jong-un to scale down or withdraw US troops from South Korea has cast further uncertainty over US intentions. While unlikely, at least in the near future, a US military withdrawal from Korea and Japan would paradoxically, on the basis of crisis-torn capitalism, unleash an even more ferocious arms race in the region with Japan and South Korea probably building their own nuclear weapons. Such a development would alarm the Chinese regime.
Therefore, rather than peace, the process initiated in Singapore could be the start of a new phase of heightened tensions between the US, China and other regional powers.
Kim regime’s strategy
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union – North Korea’s main economic support – which caused its own planned economy to all but implode, the regime has been driven by one overriding aim:- to guarantee its own survival. This is the origin of the North’s nuclear programme as part of its traditional attention-seeking foreign policy.
Regime survival is not an ideological question, it is nothing to do with ‘communism’ or Stalinism or opposing capitalism. The very wealthy and privileged elite in North Korea consists of a thousand or so top families mostly with military connections. They understand that if their state and regime collapses or is absorbed, like East Germany (the former DDR), into a ‘democratic’ capitalist Korea ruled by South Korean capitalism in which an anti-communist, right-wing still wields considerable power, then they will be ruthlessly dealt with – show trials, prison or worse.
Because of this, Kim’s policy is to secure on whatever basis the continuation of his regime, now entrenched as a third-generation ‘monarchy’. Since the late 1990s the regime has experimented with various capitalist market reforms, but, due to economic isolation and US-led sanctions, its attempts to follow China’s example have been frustrated.
It is now likely that Kim Jong-un will use the momentum from his deal with Trump, which strengthens his grip on power, to launch a new phase of pro-capitalist reforms. The regime, with support from Seoul and Beijing, will push for a speedy relaxation of the international sanctions and hope for new economic deals, especially with South Korean capitalism, to come quickly.
North Korean state television gave massive coverage to Singapore in its summit coverage, interviewing ordinary citizens, promoting the city-state as a glistening success story for “authoritarian state capitalism”. Economic reforms in North Korea will therefore not be accompanied by political relaxation or democratisation. China will again be the model in this respect.
The South Korean state with its “Western-style democracy” has no desire to spread this political system over the border, understanding that it needs autocratic rule in the North to hold this largely very poor society in line to block refugees moving south, mass protests, unionisation, and strikes by the North’s cheap labour force, which the Southern capitalists now hope to exploit more extensively as a result of post-summit economic deals.
Democratic rights have always been achieved by mass struggle from below, rather than through deals made between governments and ruling elites. This was the experience in South Korea itself where mass strikes in the 1980s ended the rule of the generals. The working class – organised democratically in socialist mass parties – is the key to achieving real peace and ending brutal dictatorial rule in the Koreas, in China and throughout the region, by ending capitalism and the threat of imperialist interventions by the US or any other power.